Sitting Room

Donald Shephard

A young, female ghost, a mere specter of the essence of a being, glided from the cupboard under the stairs, through the dining room door without opening it, and into the sitting room muttering, “Ach der lieber! Ach der lieber!” I knelt ripping out old wall-to-wall carpet. Her presence stopped my work until she returned to her cupboard moaning in German.

The house began its life in 1913 surrounded by Tokay grapes. By the time we bought it as newly-weds in 1978, the expanding town of Lodi engulfed it. Canny city planners lined the street with sycamores to provide much needed shade in the heat of the Central Valley summers. These sixty-foot trees filtered the light passing though their leaves onto the mullioned windows of the house.

The three front windows held individual panes of glass. I scraped, primed and painted their frames inside and out three times over the years. There were 196 pieces of glass each with four sides, believe me, I know. Age-wrinkles in those panes muted the light before it reached the lace curtains within. The leaves, the warped glass, and the lace all served to produce mottled illumination in the sitting room.

When we first bought the house, from the Zimmermann family it had all the bones that Colleen so masterfully brought out, but they hid behind the grime of two generations of smokers, yellow wall-to-wall carpet and, what real estate agents call “delayed maintenance”. Boards disguised the sliding doors. Soot stained the yellow brick of the original fireplace and the broken tiled hearth. The walls were a dirty yellow except in the corners where the original paint color remained because smoke swirled, but failed to penetrate. The first shock of that workday came as I ripped up the wall-to-wall stained ugliness to find solid oak floors then she appeared. The following day she re-emerged crying, “Mein schlechtes, altes Wohnzimmer! Mein schlechtes, altes Haus!” When again she returned to her cupboard, I removed the boards and pulled out dusty, mullioned, sliding doors between the sitting room and dining room.

One vacation, I repaired the coved sitting room ceiling which resembled a map of the Sacramento River Delta. I chased around each island of plaster with a scraper and sprayed water into the cracks. Then I hot-glued the edges and quickly jammed a bendy board tee under the island to hold it against the laths. The next day I plastered and smoothed the cracks. We added sand to the ceiling paint to give it enough texture to hide minor irregularities. Twice we ran out of paint before we completely covered the ceiling and twice the quart we hoped would finish the job was a mismatched color. These repairs held through all the rigors of raising three boys in that house although the aura of the sitting room subdued them into quiet reading.

The furniture in the room reflected the peaceful mood of the light. The upright chairs had cane seats and backs further filtering the light onto the grass-cloth covered walls and the oak floor. A mirror above the new, red brick fireplace reflected the shades within the room. The rich colors of the octagonal carpet in the center emphasized the space reaching above it to the nine-foot ceiling. An étagère full of family photos and mementos stood in the entry to greet visitors.

At Christmas time, we put our lighted tree in the center window to greet passersby. If you stood outside and looked in, between the tree and the fireplace, you saw through the sliding doors, over the massive red oak furniture I made, and into a large guilt mirror. There, reflected in its shining surface you admired the two rooms, the tree within and the trees outside. Standing there, you saw the mullions, the lace, the glassed sliding doors, a brass chandelier and mirror, and the reflections of these things, all in a glowing, soft light that ensured cozy tranquility.

It took twenty-five years after we completed the sitting room to find the time, energy, and money to restore the rest of the house. Twice while I mused in silence in that lovely room, the young, female ghost slid from the cupboard under the stairs, through the dining room door without opening it, and into the sitting room. Each time she cooed, “Mein schönes Wohnzimmer. Mein schönes Haus.” Once again, she too found peace in the sitting room.

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